Monday, April 30, 2012

Long Road to America: My First 30 Years

Reposting: April 30, 1975 the long, brutal war had finally come to an end. Viet Nam's two-halves reunited, peace at last. Yet, for millions, the painful journey had just begun. Below is my journey.

My life in America began on a frigid Thanksgiving’s eve 30 years ago. Not unlike tens of thousands of other Vietnamese escaping Viet Nam at the time, my journey to America began on May 12, 1980 and ended in Oakland, California, on November 25, 1981.

It was a cold and rainy night as I and some two hundred other refugees stepped off the chartered Transamerica Airlines’ flight, which took off from Singapore 19 hours earlier and with one refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska. The cold was not like anything I had felt before. It was something that seemed to penetrate my whole body, right through the bones – a DNA-changing sensation.

Refugees arriving at Hamilton Air Force Base, 1981
(Photo: Mitchell Bonner, UC Irvine Southeast Asian Archives)

The plane was parked away from the passenger terminal where we stepped right onto big coaches that took us to our temporary housing at Refugee Transit Center on the now-closed Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato, Marin County, north of San Francisco. Because we had arrived on Thanksgiving’s eve, when the immigrant-receiving staff had gone on a four-day weekend, we had to stay on the base until the following Monday, four days later.


All I could see of America, from the window of the bus, was that of an endless stream of cars on the highway without sight of humans out and about, unlike where I came from. We arrived at Hamilton quite late, couldn't make out the surrounding landscape until the next day.


Thursday, November 26, 1981 – Thanksgiving’s Day – my first day in America. There were perhaps several hundred refugees staying in the barracks at Hamilton on this weekend, in addition to those who arrived on our flight. Later in the afternoon we were served our first Thanksgiving turkey dinner, complete with all the fixings. I didn’t like the taste of turkey then and still don’t like it today.

The lasting impression on that day came from the volunteers and staff of several immigrant and refugee service providing agencies, including some former refugees. The warmth, generosity, attentiveness and welcoming spirit that they exuded was unforgettable. They were the first group of ordinary Americans I met.
Escape from Viet Nam
It was a 19-month journey to hell and back, and through two refugee camps, 25 Hawkins Road, Singapore and Pulau Galang II, Indonesia. It also put me in touch with my Chinese half, taught me the ethics of hard work and how to live off the kindness and compassion of strangers, and completely turned me off from sleeping outdoors for fun and pleasure.

(A former refugee resident of Singapore, Lam-Khanh Nguyen, who has resettled in Germany, has created a wonderful Facebook site dedicated to 25 Hawkins Road.)
The victorious North Viet Nam may have won the war and reunified the country, but governing the former two estranged halves proved to be above and beyond the skills and experience of former soldiers and generals. By 1980 Viet Nam was crippled by the US-led economic blockade and boycott, the 1978’s epic floods, failing in its effort to integrate the former North and South Viet Nam into one country and post-war reconstruction, all the while fighting two wars – one in the north against the Chinese border incursion and one in the south again the Khmer Rouge rampaging massacres along the border.
In the mean time, political persecution and purges against those associated with the old regime, combined with a campaign to wipe out capitalism by shutting down ethnic Chinese-owned businesses, the backbone of Viet Nam’s economy, had left southern Vietnamese living in fear, paranoia and on the verge of starvation. People were whispering among themselves that “if street lamps had legs, they would have tried to escape as well.”
From the archive of the Office of United Nations High Commissioner 
for Refugees (UNHCR), which operated the refugee camps 
in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.
All kinds of boats, from canoes with outboard motors to coastal fishing boats, from river-going passenger boats to cargo haulers, were used in the desperate attempts to escape Viet Nam by sea. Others chose to cross into Thailand on foot, hacking their ways through the jungles of Cambodia, often fell victim to the Khmer Rouge en route.


The sea routes were not much better. The majority, if not all, of those who were escaping by sea had no idea where we were headed. The boats were not sea-worthy. There was neither the fuel nor expertise and experience to get us to the other side of the South China Sea. We just aimed for the open water. It was a mad dash for survival.

Thai, Filipino and Malaysian pirates preyed upon us like a pride of lions stalking an injured gazelle on the African savannah. If not fallen into the hands of the pirates, the mighty but deadly Pacific would swallow us whole with waves as tall as ten-story buildings. Others would die from dehydration and starvation adrift at sea days on end. It has been estimated that as many as 1 in 4, and possibly higher, escapees never made it.
Going Through Hell Seeking Life
My voyage began in early May, 1980, in the small Mekong Delta town of Tan Chau, a stone-throw away from the Cambodian border. My father, his two younger brothers and some business associates had been running a people-smuggling ring, selling passage to those who wanted to escape Viet Nam.

Since the exodus was in full swing, both the United Nations and Viet Nam’s Southeast Asian neighbors protested with Viet Nam, demanding that it must stop the waves of boat people that had begun to overwhelm their capacity to house for the arriving stateless refugees. In response, Viet Nam banned all fishing boats from going out to sea and impounded the remaining ones that could be used to smuggle people. If it had not been for the corrupt and disorganized new government, hundreds of thousands would not have been able to escape.

My father and his associates had modified river cargo carriers, masqueraded as long-distance passenger boats, hundreds of miles away from outlets to the South China Sea to escape the authority’s watchful eye. Three boats were used in the operation. One had left in 1978. Next up was the boat I was on and another was planned for 1982.


My boat looked somewhat like this one, perhaps smaller.
The boat had been plying its supposed passenger route for months. Late January, 1980, my father sent for me. I was 16, turning 17, approaching drafting age. The stealth operation was known to only a few, so I was oblivious, assuming that he simply wanted me to join him, working on the boat as a helping hand with my two cousins of about the same age and two other teenagers, one of whom was a gifted marine engine mechanic.

During dinner one evening, my father brought out beer and handed each of us a can to toast. The meal ended with a cigarette break where I was also invited to join in. It was a shocking, but a pleasant surprise, because until that night I was never allowed to drink and smoke with my dad and uncles, at least not in front of them.

That evening, the first event of many more to come that changed my life forever, my father and I had our first father-son adult conversation on the boat deck. He gave me my life manual with a few parting homilies thrown in for good measure. Needless to say, no sleep was to be had the rest of the night. Because of the secretive nature of the operation, there was no goodbye with my mother, my younger brother and two sisters, whom I had not seen for almost five months and not again twelve years later.

The most devasting news of all was that I would be escaping Viet Nam alone. My father promised that the rest of our family would go later on the 1982 boat, which ended in failure.

We left Tan Chau on Monday, May 12, plying our usual route that would take us past a major outlet to the South China Sea. To escape detection, the scheduled stops were meticulously planned where small groups of passengers would be embarking and disembarking.

Three days later, the last group of passengers came aboard in a small coastal town of Binh Thoi, about an hour away from the open water of the South China Sea. Three hundred and four people had crammed into a boat about 20 feet by 70 feet, three deeps. More than standing out like a sore thumb, raising suspicion among the locals, was the overwhelming number of Chinese-Vietnamese passengers and families that seemed to carry no luggage.

All along the route at each stop, there were so many tell-tale signs that this boat could not have been anything else but about to escape. However, silence had been bought with the local police and authorities and the coastal marine police along the route.

We left Binh Thoi around 10 pm, timed to coincide with the receding tide and a moonless night. When we arrived at the opening to the sea, instead of crossing the channel and up another river to the final destination of Bien Hoa, another 5 hours away, we aimed for the sea full throttle, all lights off.

With the exception of the crew, which I was a member, the passengers were told to stay down close to the floor and be quiet. Though there had been many trial runs in the river waterways, nobody knew how the engine or the boat would perform in open water at full capacity and maximum speed. The oversized engine sounded as if it was tearing the boat apart; the nuts and bolts seemed to have been rattled loose.

Soon we were sighted by a coastal patrol boat, which gave chase and ordered us to stop over the roaring engine. Shots were fired, hitting the top cabin. The ensuing chaos in pitch black condition outside and with no lighted markers, our boat ran into and became entangled with fishing nets planted in the open channel; cables strung between wooden poles to hold the nets down ripped the steering house off of the boat, injuring a few, including the skipper and almost pulling those of us inside with it.

We ran over some of the poles. Smaller boats would have been broken up and sunk. Not knowing if the coastal police were still chasing us, we kept on going at full speed until morning. Without charts and a proper working compass, we had no idea where we were in the vast open ocean.  

Surveying the damage the next morning, we discovered that the hull, which stored fresh drinking water had been cracked, rendering the water undrinkable. Furthermore, the damage to the engine, which was pushed beyond its limits the night before, was beyond repair.

As a son of one of the owners, I was made aware of the situation, but the majority of the 304 people on board were not aware of our impending doom. Furthermore, sea sickness had immobilized most of the passengers. Unable to get up and move, most relieved themselves in-situ.   

By the end of our first full day at sea, the sense of hopelessness had begun to set in, partly due to the lack of drinking water and food, with which we could have cooked rice. We soon settled in for our first night in the open water. Being that far out with no land in sight, our boat was like a grain of sand on a beach. The water, with its deep clear blue color, reflected off the lights from our boat, was sparkling and shimmering. When a coin was dropped overboard, its descent was visible for a long time.

By the second day, some had either recovered or gotten used to the motion of the sea, but most had already become lifeless. Making matters worse, the shear humanity – 304 unwashed individuals confined to a space the size of a Boeing 737 – combining with the baking sun, which had heated up the cabin to an intolerable condition. The few hundred pounds of jicama, a root vegetable that is mostly water, which had been on board as part of the charade-cargo, the only source of drinking water, were now being rationed with children and the elderly having priority.

Though the sea was quite calm, the rolling, undulating waves could have destroyed the boat in an instance if the weather had turned for the worse.

The vast empty ocean with no sights of land and ships, which we had been told there would be numerous about now, began to wreack havoc on our mental state. Furthermore, a few of us spotted what looked like bodies and boat debris, floating in the water. We surmised they probably belonged to the unlucky boat or boats that had run into a storm few days prior. We did not want to think about the unthinkable. Maintaining calm and optimism, however, had become an impossible task.

Things began to unravel the second night. People could be heard crying and wailing in the dark corners of the boat. Small children began to suffer – diarrhea and vomiting – crying uncontrollably.

The third day seemed to have spelled the end. The stench from the vomit and human waste had become unbearable. More and more adults now demanded water or slices of jicama. Gold bars and hundred-US-dollar bills seemed to spill out from everywhere; unfortunately they could not quench our thirst or stave off our hunger, nor could they guarantee our safe passage. Death seemed inevitable.

The first casualty occurred when a two-year-old boy stopped moving, unable to be woken up from his sleep. His mother became distraught and began to wail. The child’s father, though not crying, became crazed. Sometime later in the afternoon, he made his way to the top deck and jumped into the ocean. We were now down to 302 lifeless bodies nearing the gates of hell.

We stumbled upon a busy shipping lane on the third night, which we later learned was the main sea route between Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, We began to see very large ships passing by. We screamed. We banged on pots and pans. We flashed our lights. None stopped. Each passing ship caused panic because our tiny boat nearly capsized in its wake.

A large pot that was used for cooking rice was brought onto the top deck. We started burning the rags off of our bodies and anything we could find in the hopes of attracting attention from the passing ships.

Sometime after midnight, a night that had our hopes dashed again and again with each passing ship, suddenly a hulking ship stopped and appeared to go in reverse towards our boat. All those who still had voice began to scream more loudly. More people took off their shirts and pants and threw them into the rice cooker to stoke up the fire again.

The ship stopped. We kept on screaming and burning more of our clothes. We did not know what was going. It may not have been very long, but it seemed to have lasted an eternity. The ship began to move closer to our boat, which nearly rolled over in its wake.

Blinding floodlights were shone on our boat and a ladder was dropped down. We began to cry with happiness, knowing that we had just escaped death. It took another 3 hours before all 302 of us tired, hungry, sea-sickened, lifeless Vietnamese to come onboard what turned out to be an oil tanker named George F Getty II. The sea unworthy boat that had miraculously carried us across the South China Sea was filled up with water and sunk.


About to be rescued by the US Navy. Photo courtesy of the US Navy.
By morning most of us were huddled together in an open area on the top deck of the tanker. Some were able to get washed and a few even managed to learn about who our saviors were. It was an oil tanker en route to Hong Kong. She was Liberian-registered with an Italian captain and a Filipino crew. She belonged to the Getty Oil company of California.

I had my first Italian meal of spaghetti and meatballs on May 18, 1980 aboard the George F Getty II, somewhere on the South China Sea.

Before we settled in for another night on the behemoth oil tanker, a familiar Vietnamese voice came on the loudspeaker announcing the good news that the ship had turned around, heading back to Singapore, but the somewhat bad news was that we weren’t sure if the island-state would allow us to come ashore and granted us temporary housing while waiting for resettlement in a third country.

Amidst cry of joy and silent sobbing, though still not quite comprehending what it all meant, we all knew that our ordeal, for the time being, had ended. We now had been fed, washed and no longer adrift on the South China Sea, but the uncertainty was palpable because we still had no idea where our home would eventually be.

25 Hawkins Road
We arrived in Singapore on the night of May 19, 1980, anchoring among hundreds of ships and oil tankers in the busy Port of Singapore. Gleaming highrises could be seen in the distance. A truly modern world most of us had never seen coming from war-ravaged Viet Nam.

As night fell, this island-state lit up like a sparkling jewel, surrounded by twinkling lights that were the ships in the harbor. Looking back, it was like the Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade, an out-of-this-world experience for someone who came from a country where old combustible-engine automobiles had been converted to run on coal and city and street lamps had become a dreamy distant past.

As day light broke, allowing us to see an even more amazing Singapore’s cityscape, the good news came over the loudspeaker that we would be coming ashore sometime before lunch. More crying of joy broke out. Amidst smiles we also learned that somehow one of us had gone missing, may have fallen off the ship. We were now down to 301, from the original 304 leaving Viet Nam.

One by one we boarded ferry boats that took us into Singapore harbor, then each was given a bag lunch of sandwich, soft drink and an apple.

From boarding the ferry to waiting in the harbor to boarding the busses that eventually took us to 25 Hawkins Road, Sembawang, in the northern suburbs of Singapore, we were all in a daze, marveling at everything we saw. How clean. How modern. How orderly everything was. And to top it all off, almost everyone around us was Chinese with whom some of us were able to communicate. It was a revelation.


Your truly, at 16, taken 2 or 3 days after arriving at 25 Hawkins Road,
still with the shirt, on my shoulder, that I left Viet Nam with.
We arrived at 25 Hawkins Road about an hour or so later. It was quite a sight to see hundred of Vietnamese lining the road welcoming our arrival. At this point boat people rescued from 2 to 4 boats were brought into the camp every day, averaging anywhere between 40 and 500 people. Our group was among the largest rescued from a single boat. It was May 20, 1980.


32 years later -- the shirt -- the only thing I came to America with.

9 comments:

  1. thanks for sharing, sonny. very well writen. brought tears to my eye...I believe you have found your new path to a new career.. looking forward to read the next chapter... all the best

    ping

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  2. Sonny, at last, these words wrenched from your tremendous voyage through the world's forces.

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  3. Thanks for sharing. My new life also started at 25 Hawkins Road, but I came to Norway after being rescued by a Norwegian ship.

    Have a look at http://www.takknorge.no

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  4. Great story to share Mr. Le. I arrived in the U.S.A. on 11/25/1979. Here is my boat journey story that I made with my sons earlier this year. If you have the time, check it out, if you have not seen it already. http://seaofmemorydocumentary.blogspot.com/
    Happy Thanksgiving!

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  5. Dear Sonny Le
    Thanks for sharing. Well done in describe the camp. I am reseach for Singapore refugee camp. I am working to create a comprehensive web site which consolidates information about Refugee Camps in SE Asia. The site will be created by and for refugees. I would like to ask permission to use some of your photos and information on my website. Please contact me at vt268tengah@gmail.com.
    Thank you
    Anna Bui

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  6. Hi Sonny,
    I have a blog at www.paulduongwriting.com dedicated to an up and coming book about Vietnamese Refugees Experiences, are you open to a link exchanges? please contact me at paul@paulduongwriting.com.

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  7. Hi Sonny,

    You and I were very much the same age and arrived to SPO at about the same time. We were a small group of people rescued by the British owned Shell tanker Ebalina in June 1980. There was also the second group of refugees rescued by the same ship later in August who arrived to SPO too.

    I have been searching for these people online in the past few years. And of course, I love to get to know people who were there at Hawkins road, as well as other Vietnamese refugees since we all share the same root, and have similar adventurous stories.

    My contact email is winds_storms at yahoo dat com.

    Tom.

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    Replies
    1. Hi, please join our Facebook group "hawkins road refugees", which Sonny mentioned above. Khanh

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  8. Dear Sonny,

    I am the founder of the Hawkins Rd. Facebook group, which you mentioned, and very grateful you wrote down your story to share with us. I must have been at the camp at the same time as you (was only 10). I recognize myself and my feelings in your descriptions, which moved me to tears.

    Lam-Khanh

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